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Ghost Towns of the Wild East

Some years back, I read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, the moving account of his travels among the vanishing Christian peoples of the Middle East. I was struck by his description of Syria’s Byzantine “ghost towns,” where flocks of sheep today take shelter in fifth-century churches — churches where, perhaps, one or more of the Fathers preached and prayed. The homes were so well preserved that olive presses still stood intact in the doorways. I’m just now learning that there are many such abandoned villages.

Dotting the barren limestone hills of north-central Syria, between Antioch and Aleppo, are the well-preserved remains of some 700 villages that flourished under the Christian Roman empire of the fourth century and later. Set two to three miles apart, with their elegant churches and clusters of gray stone buildings, many of them look as if they had been abandoned yesterday … About 550 [A.D. came] a series of known disasters: Sassanian invasions, epidemics of bubonic plague, drought, and famine. From the mid-seventh century onward living conditions deteriorated. Nonetheless the region remained occupied through the eighth century, after which it was gradually abandoned.

See the rest of the story, and a photo, at Archaeology magazine.

Dalrymple’s book is not perfect, but it’s well worth your time.